Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander is a dark eco-thriller that leaves you feeling unsettled and angry at the world in which we inhabit.
The book starts off with a bang. The main character, who is known as Jane, follows a trail of breadcrumbs left by a mysterious heiress who goes by the name of Silvana. The trail starts in the form of a taxidermied hummingbird, later to be discovered as extinct due to environmental degradation and climate change. Jane is haunted by Silvana – driven to find out more about her, to understand why she left her fortunes and became a possible bioterrorist. Jane is also running from her past and from her mundane life as a not so happy wife and a mediocre mother.
This is my fourth VanderMeer novel. His books may not tell linear stories, but they do leave you filled with emotion. Sadness. Despair. Regret. Hope. Unease. His Southern Reach trilogy was a life changing set of novels for me, and if you haven’t read them, you should do that right now. This book also reminded me of some of Douglas Coupland and Chuck Palahniuk’s earlier books where people feel out of place in a world that privileges the destruction of people and the environment in favor of rampant consumption.
So where does this novel sit in comparison to the Southern Reach trilogy? I found parts of this book to be slow, but VanderMeer’s talent for writing haunting prose kept me reading. I liked that VanderMeer crafted a character who defied societal stereotypes. Jane is strong, literally, as a female body-builder. She isn’t anchored to her domestic life. She abandons it, with minimal guilt, for a bigger cause: saving the world from possible bioterrorism, or maybe from something else.
If you are looking for a book that will spell everything out for you, this isn’t it. It’s one where you will need to suspend disbelief despite many of the themes – ecological devastation, violence and warfare, capitalism and commodification, a global pandemic – being rooted in the real world. The reader will experience the confusion and terror Jane experiences throughout the novel – she questions who she is, what parts of the world are worth saving, and why Silvana might have chosen her to carry on her legacy. This book is about the human condition in the middle of a chaotic world where people seem to care less and less about each other and the environment.
Thank you to Jeff VanderMeer, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and NetGalley for the advanced copy of Hummingbird Salamander.